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Prosecutors, Defense Attorneys Spar Over Child Sex Crimes Bill

A panel of House lawmakers on Tuesday heard prosecutors and defense attorneys debate a bill that would allow prosecutors in child sex crime cases to bring in evidence of prior offenses, including accusations by other children.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Houston, speaks in favor of Amendment #5 to SB4 the congressional redistricting bill that would affect a small portion of north Harris County during debate on June 14, 2011.  The amendment was eventually tabled.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred Tuesday over a proposal that aims to increase convictions for sex crimes against children by allowing prosecutors to use evidence of prior offenses, including accusations by other children against the same defendant.

Prosecutors called the measure a “necessary tool,” while defense attorneys warned that the measure could lead to more wrongful convictions.

At a House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing, lawmakers considered House Bill 330, by Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball. The Senate version of the bill, Senate Bill 12, by Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, passed in the upper last week with the support of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Prosecutors have said that they face particular difficulty in the prosecution of child sexual assault cases, because often there is no physical evidence, like DNA. Often the only evidence is the word of the accuser against the accused.

“All you have is a traumatized, frightened, intimidated and scarred child,” Riddle told the committee, adding that bringing in prior accusations would show the jury "a defendant's propensity for committing these types of crimes.”

Along with prosecutors, child advocacy groups, including Children at Risk, support the bill.

“Everyone says this is the worst offense imaginable,” said Justin Wood, a prosecutor at the Harris County district attorney’s office. “And often the jury doesn't have the full picture.”

If the bill passes, prosecutors would still be required to convince a judge that there is enough evidence to prove the accusation “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The judge would hold a hearing outside of the presence of the jury to determine whether the other accusation was strong enough. “The gatekeeping function is key here,” Wood said.

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, asked whether the bill would be detrimental to the defendant's right to a fair trial.

“I'm all about protecting children, but we're also supposed to protect the defendant's rights,” said Canales, who is also a criminal defense lawyer. 

Kristin Etter, of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, told the committee that the bill would "undoubtedly lead to more wrongful convictions in Texas.”

She said that because Jessica’s Laws passed in 2007 increased penalties for child sexual assault, lawmakers should not “ease the prosecutorial burden."

The a lack of physical evidence in the cases, she reminded the committee, “cuts both ways.” It makes it more difficult to convict someone, but it also makes it more difficult for innocent people who have been convicted, because there is no DNA evidence to help clear their names.

The bill was left pending in committee.

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Courts Criminal justice